How awesome would it be to venture out on a road trip to see the birthplace of the modern theme parks? We’re talking about an epic theme park road trip itinerary through Southern California.
When you hear the words theme park and California, what immediately comes to mind? Most likely, iconic theme parks like Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. Theme park lovers understand that Southern California is truly the epicenter of creation for the modern theme park. Here’s a road trip itinerary for your epic pilgrimage to see California’s theme parks!
Starting Point for the California Theme Park Road Trip
We suspect most people taking this epic theme park road trip will be flying to California from a point of origin. We start our journey in Los Angeles at the LAX Airport where you can pick up your rental car. Depending on where in the U.S. or the world you may be flying into Los Angeles will determine the time of day you arrive. For those of us here in the United States coming from the midwest or the east coast, you will most likely arrive at LAX midday or late afternoon. Prior to leaving we highly suggest reserving your rental car ahead of time given the volume of cars that are rented from the sixth busiest airport in the world.
Rental Car and Driving Tips
Upon arriving at LAX, you can take a free shuttle to the major rental car companies offsite locations. Make your way down to the baggage claim level at LAX, then proceed to the exterior passenger pickup area. All major rental car company shuttles pickup arriving passengers at this level. Once outside, proceed across the pickup lanes to the center of the roadway where all shuttle bus stops are located.
Be sure to use the designated cross walk areas as this is a heavily traversed area for vehicles. All major rental car companies have designated shuttle pickup locations – look for the corresponding sign for your specific rental car company. Rental car shuttles are frequent during the day, most have a shuttle arriving approximately every 20 minutes.
Once you have your rental car proceed south towards Anaheim, California. We highly suggest using your preferred map app, such as Google Maps, etc. to plot the best route from LAX to Anaheim. This will help you avoid any major traffic jams, etc. which are frequent in Souther California.
✅ Check out our Theme Parks Road Trip Checklist!
California Theme Park Road Trip Itinerary
First stop is the Anaheim area, home to the some of the oldest theme parks in the U.S., Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. We suggest, for the next few days, staying in one location since the Disneyland theme parks and Knott’s Berry Farm are less than 10 miles away from one another.
Knott’s Berry Farm – 1 Day
The California theme park road trip without a doubt needs to start at the oldest theme park in California, Knott’s Berry Farm. Originally started in 1920 as working farm, in Buena Park, Knott’s grew in popularity as a restaurant was added in the 1930’s and then later expanded in the 1940’s to include a Ghost Town attraction for visiting, waiting restaurant Guests. In the early 1950’s it was further expanded as many Guests came just for the expanded Ghost Town attractions; amusement park type rides were added and as they say the rest is history. Over the years, the park continued to expand and become even more popular with locals and out of state visitors.
Today, this 56 acre theme park is packed with attractions and shows for children and adults of all ages. We suggest getting there when the park opens and spending a full day experiencing all the park has to offer including the original Ghost Town area that is a vibrant area even to this day.
Disneyland – 2 Days
Next, we go to Walt Disney’s Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland. At approximately twice as big as Knott’s Berry Farm, the Disneyland park – originally opened in 1955 – packs in highly detailed and heavily themed lands of attractions, shows, and immersive experiences. To fully appreciate this theme park in one day is nearly impossible. We suggest a minimum of 2 days in this park to give you the opportunity to take in all the attractions, lands, and live entertainment. Recently expanded with the addition of a new land, Star War: Galaxy’s Edge, immerses you into the Star Wars world.
While at Disneyland, take note of the extensive level of detailing and themeing on Main Street, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. While experiencing all of the E-ticket and D-ticket offerings is a must, don’t forget to spend some time in the various themed shops and restaurants, and classic venues such as the Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Tom Sawyer’s Island, and take tour around the park on the beloved Disneyland Railroad.
Disney’s California Adventure – 1 Day
Directly across from Disneyland is Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). We’ve allotted one day for this California themed park. However, you could spend two days here depending on the time of year and the volume of park attendance. Things to check out when you’re at DCA:
- Cars Land: Radiator Springs Racers
- Marvel’s Avengers Campus
- Soarin’ Around the World
- Grizzly River Run
- World of Color nighttime show
Between Day 2 and 3 at the Disneyland Resort, we suggest strolling the promenade at Downtown Disney District. While there, check out the expansive World of Disney store and the various other boutique retail stores. Downtown Disney is also a great place to have dinner one night outside of the theme parks.
Sea World San Diego – 1 Day
Next on the road trip, after we leave the Anaheim area, head south on Interstate 5 to Sea World San Diego. This iconic marine and animal themed park is located in the Mission Bay Area of San Diego. Though small compared to the Disneyland Resort, it packs in a full day of educational attractions, shows and it has a host of thrill rides. While there, check out the new Sesame Street Bay of Play area that is great area of the park for the kiddos. Check out the following rides:
- Manta Roller Coaster
- Journey to Atlantis
- Emperor Roller Coaster
- Shipwreck Rapids
- Electric Eel Roller Coaster
- Bayside Skyride
- Sea Lions Live show
- Dolphin Adventure show
Universal Studios Hollywood – 1 – 2 Days
After an exhilarating time exploring the ocean’s wildlife in San Diego, head back north to Burbank and Universal City for an iconic two day visit to Universal Studios Hollywood. Universal Studios Hollywood opened in 1964 and has the unique distinction of being an actual, working studio couple with the theme park component.
Universal Studios offers a wide range of themed and immersive entertainment rides and attractions. Putting you the Guest right into the heart of some of your favorite movies and TV shows. There is a lot to experience in this unique, multi-level theme park. Here are our some of recommendations of things to experience:
- Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- The World-Famous Studio Tour
- Fast & Furious – Supercharged, seen on the Studio Tram Tour
- Kung Fu Panda Show at the DreamWorks Theatre
- Jurassic World – The Ride
- King Kong 360 3D
- Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride roller coaster
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
- The Simpsons Ride
- The Wizarding World of Harry Potter land
- Universal CityWalk
Six Flags Magic Mountain – 1 Day
Though technically not a theme park, Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park is worth the visit given how close you are staying in the area near Universal Studios Hollywood. Six Flags, a 260+ acre park which opened in 1971, is a great place to get your thrill ride fix and take in some iconic amusement park rides and attractions. Who doesn’t love a good day spent taking in what Magic Mountain has to offer.
While you visit Six Flags Magic Mountain, here are some of the park’s offerings you shouldn’t miss:
- Apocalypse wooden roller coaster
- Batman The Ride roller coaster
- Full Throttle high speed roller coaster
- Goliath roller coaster
- Ninja suspended roller coaster
- Scream roller coaster
- Superman: Escape from Krypton
- The New Revolution, the world’s first inverted roller coaster
- West Coast Racers dueling/racing roller coaster
- X2 roller coaster
Best Time to Take a California Theme Park Road Trip
It should go without saying that California theme parks are extremely popular with both locals and visiting out of state and out of country Guests. While the California weather offers year-round accessibility to all these theme parks, here are the times of year we suggest visiting:
- Mid-January through mid-March
- Mid-April through mid-May (excluding Spring Break)
- Mid-September through mid-November (excluding the weeks around Halloween)
- Try visiting mid-week to avoid busy weekends with locals
- Avoid major Holidays such as Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s Eve
✅ Click Here for Great Theme Park Gift Ideas!
Best Food Options In California Theme Parks
Knott’s Berry Farm Restaurant Suggestions
- Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant: full service sit-down restaurant, reservations suggested
- Cable Car Kitchen: funnel cakes with a variety of fruit toppings
- Consider purchasing a dining plan if you’re visit spans over multiple days
Disneyland Restaurant Suggestions
- Blue Bayou Restaurant: one of the coolest theme park restaurants on the planet, full service sit-down
- Cafe Orleans: open area casual dining
- Churro Carts: because when in California one must have a churro
- Plaza Inn: buffet/family style with character dining options
Disney’s California Adventure Restaurant Suggestions
- Carthay Circle Restaurant: fine/signature dining
- Flo’s V8 Cafe: quick service restaurant
- World of Color Dessert Party: dining event during the nighttime show
Sea World San Diego Restaurant Suggestions
- Hibiscus Modern Mexican: quick service with outdoor seating
- High Tide Brews: offers craft beers with a scenic garden view
- Calypso Bay Smokehouse: get your BBQ fix
Universal Studios Hollywood Restaurant Suggestions
- Cletus’ Chicken Shack: check out the chicken and waffle sandwich
- Isla Nu-Bar: refreshing tiki style drinks with collectible tiki cups
- Mel’s Diner: classic American fare set within a vintage 50’s drive-in inspired setting
✅ Check out our list of Best Luxury Theme Park Hotels!
Hotel Options Near California Theme Parks
- Disney’s Grand California Hotel & Spa: located at Downtown Disney and Disney’s California Adventure
- Disneyland Hotel: iconic first hotel created at Disneyland walking distance to both theme parks
- The Westin Anaheim Resort: across the street from Disney’s California Adventure and directly adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center
San Diego, California
- Paradise Point Resort & Spa: private island feel only 1 mile away from Sea World
- Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina: located on Mission Bay and less than 1 mile away from Sea World
- Holiday Inn Express San Diego – Sea World Area: less than 1 mile away from Sea World
- Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City: within 1 mile of Universal Studios Hollywood
- Sheraton Universal Hotel: within walking distance to CityWalk and Universal Studios
- The Garland: great for families and only 1.5 miles away from Universal
Where to Go After the California Theme Park Road Trip
The next logical destination for another theme park road trip is Orlando, Florida, home to some of the most visited theme parks in the world. Destinations such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, Sea World Florida, and Legoland Florida. If you’re adventurous and have the time and money add a few days and venture to Tampa, Florida to visit Busch Gardens.